Crouching up against the El in Frankford is the Circle Theater, once a Spanish-Baroque confection, now a sneaker store with a secret. Opened in 1929, barely a sidewalk-width separates the old movie palace from the Margaret-Orthodox station. Despite this crowding, architects Hoffman and Henon gave the building an elaborate façade of twisted columns and terra-cotta ornament.
The real surprise, though, is inside. The Circle was the only entirely “atmospheric” theater in Philadelphia, meaning that the ceiling was painted with a trompe-l’oeil sky. When movies were shown, the “sky” would twinkle with constellations of electric stars and was traversed by projected clouds. This was not the only deception. Elaborate false building facades ringed the auditorium. Built five feet out from the wall, the facades were embellished with working fountains, stained-glass and artificial trees. The whole was supposed to create the illusion of sitting outdoors at night in a Spanish courtyard. The illusion was made more compelling by the theater’s size: it takes up an entire city block, and could seat 2,991 people.
The sneaker store is a growth within the larger body of the theater, a small, rectangular box made out of brick and concrete block that was built into the auditorium’s massive open space. The seating is gone, and it appears the balcony is as well. This is what remains intact.